The global wheelchair market is expected to grow more than four percent annually until 2022, according to Technavio. Unfortunately, access to wheelchairs is concentrated in high-income countries.

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 70 million people need a wheelchair — many living in low to mid-income countries. These countries lack critical health care infrastructure, as well as financial resources to attract wheelchair manufacturers and retailers. The impact is that millions of people can literally be left stranded and isolated. Without a wheelchair, people with disabilities have few options: they can remain confined in their homes, be carried by a family member or be left to crawl on the ground.

WHO standards

Access to a simple, functional wheelchair transforms lives: an individual can attend school, gain employment and increase their independence and quality of life.

WHO defines an appropriate wheelchair as one that provides proper fit and support; meets the user’s needs and environmental conditions; is safe and durable; and can be obtained, maintained and serviced in the user’s country at sustainable cost.

Engineering solutions

Humanitarian organizations are taking the lead. The International Society of Wheelchair Providers (ISWP), a resource for wheelchair service standards around the world, promotes WHO standards along with training, research, design, manufacturing and services for countries lacking in resources.

“Through collaboration and teamwork, we are making a difference in millions of lives — just by providing mobility,” said Don Schoendorfer, ISWP board member and founder and president of Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM), which last year celebrated distributing one million wheelchairs in the developing world. FWM recently completed its groundbreaking wheelchair test track at its Irvine, California, headquarters. Along with FWM’s own efforts to keep improving its wheelchairs, all ISWP members now can access the test track, thereby enabling wheelchair providers to keep improving solutions in the developing world.